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Winter Hiking Safety

Important: Hiking Safety Tips

Safety and preparedness are extremely important no matter your physical ability or destination. Properly preparing for winter conditions is essential for a more enjoyable and safer experience.

Check out our How To videos for more Winter Hiking Safety (links leave DEC website)

Plan Ahead

  • Learn about the area you'll be visiting ahead of time; know the opportunities and the regulations. Check maps, guidebooks and websites. Visit state lands near you.
  • Arrange to go with a group or at least one other person.
  • Know your skill level and physical capabilities-choose trails within your or your group's ability. Remember it takes more effort and energy to move through snow.
  • Days are short-know what time the sun sets and plan your hike so you can return before dark.
  • Inform someone of your travel plans-let them know where you are going, your planned route, when you plan to return, and emergency numbers to call if you do not return at the scheduled time.
  • Program cell phones with the DEC Dispatch phone numbers, but do not rely on cell service in all areas.
    • 1-833-NYS-RANGERS (1-833-697-7264) or 911
  • Check the weather forecast, but keep in mind that temperatures will be lower, winds will be stronger, and snow will be deeper on mountain summits. Prepare accordingly and postpone your trip if the conditions are too harsh.
  • Check trail conditions before hiking.
  • Make sure you know how to use a map and compass when planning to hike in remote locations.

What to Wear

  • Base layers of moisture-wicking fabric to keep your skin dry, insulating layers such as wool or fleece, and waterproof or water-resistant outer layers. Avoid cotton fabrics, which hold moisture.
  • Thick socks, a winter hat, and gloves or mittens.
  • Waterproof, insulated boots.
  • Skis or snowshoes, if snow depths are deeper than 8 inches.
  • Sunscreen (sunburns occur year-round) and sun glasses.
  • A watch or other time-keeping device.

What to Pack

  • Day pack large enough to carry your gear
  • Water and high energy snacks
  • First aid kit
  • Trail map and compass or GPS unit
  • Extra clothing, including extra hat, socks and mittens
  • Plastic whistle (avoid metal, which can freeze)
  • Micro-spikes or crampons for icy conditions
  • Flashlight or headlamp and extra batteries
  • Pocket knife
  • Trekking poles
  • Bivy sack, space blanket and heavy-duty garbage bags for emergency shelter
  • Fire starter kit: matches in waterproof container and cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly

On the Trail

  • Keep an eye on the weather-if conditions worsen, head back immediately.
  • Drink water regularly; eat and rest often.
  • Add or remove layers of clothing to keep body temperature comfortable-overheating and sweating can result in significant cooling and hypothermia.
  • Keep track of time and remember it will take you as long to return to your starting point as it did to hike out.
  • Turn off cellphones or switch to "airplane mode" to conserve the battery. Do not use your cell phone as a light source, which will drain the batteries. Use the flashlight you packed instead.
  • Stay on trails to avoid unseen obstacles covered by snow.
  • Use snowshoes or skis in deep snow to reduce injuries and ease travel. Their use also prevents "post-holing"-leaving deep footprints in the snow - which makes trails more difficult and hazardous for others to use.
    • The use of snowshoes or skis is required in the High Peaks Wilderness when snow depths exceed 8 inches.
  • When hiking with dogs, keep them to the side of trails to avoid "paw post-holing" as well.
  • Skiers and snowshoers using designated snowmobile trails should keep to the side and move off the trail to allow safe passage of snowmobiles. Snowmobilers should slow down when passing skiers and snowshoers.
  • Use caution when on ice over water bodies. Ice that holds snow may not hold the weight of a person.
    • Check ice thickness before traveling across it.
    • Avoid ice over running water, and near inlets, outlets, boathouses, and docks (especially those with "bubblers" or other ice prevention devices).

If you get Lost

  • Stop where you are. Keep calm and assess your situation.
  • Try to determine your location-look for recognizable landmarks and listen for vehicles on nearby roads.
  • If you are sure you can get yourself out of the woods using a map and compass, do so-otherwise stay put.
  • If you have cell service, call the DEC Dispatch (see above). The dispatcher will ask questions to collect information needed to help searchers locate you quickly.
  • If you don't have cell service, move to a location close by where you are visible to searchers on the ground or in the air. If you have something brightly colored, wear it or place it in a conspicuous location.
  • If it appears that you will need to spend the night:
    • Clear an area of snow to build a campfire for heat, light and comfort. A fire will help searchers locate you.
    • Using snow or items from your pack, build a shelter that will serve as a "cocoon" to keep you warm and sheltered from the weather. You can also use dead branches, conifer boughs and leaf litter to insulate the shelter.
If someone is injured or stricken...
  • If there is no cell service, at least one person should remain with the injured person while the others note their location and leave to contact DEC Dispatch.
  • If there isn't anyone to stay behind, make sure the injured person has shelter and supplies before leaving to seek help.

Staying Safe in Winter

Winter is a great time to get outdoors. The cold, crisp air is exhilarating. The scenery is spectacular, even more wondrous than the summer. There are no biting insects and fewer people on the trails. The quiet and solitude is remarkable and most enjoyable.

Common Winter Problems

Problems common to winter may include avalanches, snow squalls, frostbite and thin ice. Except for those who recreate in the backcountry, most people are unlikely to become victims of avalanches. However, almost everyone has experienced a snow squall, which can obliterate vision and create slippery surfaces. Squalls tend to be brief, so stay put if you're caught in one.

Frostbite is the freezing of living tissues that causes a breakdown of their cell structure. It may affect the extremities after prolonged exposure to temperatures below freezing. Frostbite injury can range from superficial redness of the skin, slight numbness or blisters, to skin discoloration, obstruction of blood flow or blood clots. Rubbing frostbitten skin, once a popular "remedy," can cause further damage; don't do it.

When trying to decide whether ice is safe to walk on, always err on the side of caution. Test ice before putting your full weight on it. Ice is always thinner where there are springs or other moving water, such as at the mouths of tributaries, near outlets and inlets and along shorelines. It's better to remain dry and warm than to cross questionable ice just to save time.